Brexit – where next?

by Jay Turner | 16th January 2019

Yesterday evening the Government lost the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement by a record-breaking margin of 230 votes, with 118 Conservative MPs voting against the Prime Minister’s deal in a result that was at the very top end of expectations. Losing so heavily after having postponed the vote at the end of last year is a further humiliation for a Prime Minister who is certainly not in control of her own party, and increasingly not of events either. Despite the humiliation the PM is not expected to resign, and she will carry on for the moment at least.

The deal before MPs last night included both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship. With the Withdrawal Agreement the Northern Irish Backstop remains a key issue, with the written assurances received from Brussels proving to be insufficient to allay MPs’ concerns. The problem for the PM has been that her red lines (on things like freedom of movement and having an independent trade policy) boxed her in and led to a deal that in the end pleased no one.

It was interesting that the scale of defeat was such that the PM knew there had to be a confidence vote today. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn immediately confirmed that he had tabled a formal confidence motion in the government. MPs will debate the confidence motion for about six hours today following Prime Minister’s Questions at 12pm, with the vote at 7pm. For the Commons to pass a motion of no confidence the Government must be defeated by a simple majority (50%+1).

Despite the government’s heavy loss in last night’s Brexit vote, Conservative rebels will back the Prime Minister in the confidence vote. With the Conservative’s DUP allies currently pledging support as well, we expect the Prime Minister to survive the vote. This is unlikely to be the only attempt by Labour to force a General Election though. In the past such votes were regular features of the Commons. Labour officials last night confirmed last night that for them the process will be a ‘sustained campaign’.

If a motion of no confidence is (eventually) passed the process runs as follows. Opposition parties have 14 days (Wednesday 30 January) to seek to gain the numbers to form an alternative government. During this period a motion of confidence could be passed to cancel the process. If after 14 days the current government or an alternative government cannot make up the numbers to win a confidence motion, a general election would be called. From there it would take at least 25 days for an election to take place. It is also worth noting that today’s formal motion of no confidence in the Government is entirely separate from the confidence vote in Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party that was held in December. In that case the Theresa May survived, and her MPs are not able to table another no confidence motion for 12 months.

So what happens to the PM’s deal? The scale of the defeat makes it very difficult to see how she can win over rebels by making superficial tweaks. Following yesterday’s vote May told the Commons that she will now hold cross-party talks with ‘senior parliamentarians’ on the best way forward. The decision for May is whether she is really prepared to make compromises that might command a Commons majority, especially given that No.10 has already signalled that the existing red lines remain in play. If she does compromise, we can expect a much softer Brexit. The crux of the problem though is that there is no majority for any of the potential scenarios – a second referendum, a closer relationship with Europe, stopping Brexit altogether or leaving without a deal. Existing legislation states that the Prime Minister must return to the Commons on Monday to set out her next steps. In a continuation of recent developments, MPs will have the chance to table amendments which could potentially give Parliament more control of the Brexit process.

Any tweaks or compromises will of course require the acquiescence of the EU. At this stage it seems unlikely that there will be further substantive talks with Brussels, as the defeat was so big that the EU will want to wait until Parliament has agreed a new way forward. Pressure may increase on Ireland to make concessions on the Northern Irish Backstop to help reach some kind of deal, but that remains to be seen.

It is important to bear in mind that although unlikely now, a ‘no deal’ exit on 29 March remains a possibility. No deal is the default scenario if Parliament does not approve Theresa May’s deal, if no alternative is agreed, and if the Article 50 process has not been extended or revoked. There is also talk of extending the Article 50 process, possibly until July or even until December. With numerous pieces of Brexit legislation to pass before 29 March, and time running out to find a forward on the next steps, we view this as much more probable now.

In the coming days there are a number of things we will be looking out for:

  • If he fails to win the no confidence motion today, Jeremy Corbyn is likely to come under significant pressure within the Labour Party to call for a Second Referendum. He and his top advisers are still not keen on the idea though, and it will be interesting to see which Labour MPs prefer him to focus on further attempts to achieve a General Election.
  • The Cabinet has been divided for some time now, and the next moves made by key figures such could be influential on what happens next. The Remainer-clique that includes Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, and David Gauke could decide to publicly express support for the Commons playing a greater role and moving towards a softer form of Brexit.
  • Finally, the idea of indicative votes on the way forward has been gaining traction, and in the next few days we could see significant backing for the idea. Although Downing Street is not in favour, if Parliament moves to take more control of the process the votes on different scenarios could take place. At the moment it is not clear that any particular option would achieve a majority but undertaking the process might mean that MPs were eventually able to find a consensus that could be presented to the EU.
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Jay Turner

Jay is an experienced political campaigner helping clients tell their story to political audiences, and supporting them through parliamentary inquiries, regulatory threats, and reputational challenges.

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